Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, 1958
The magic trick:
Using first-person journal entries to indicate the rapid changes the protagonist is undergoing, but always maintaining his essential good
Well, you probably read this in high school, if not middle school. I have vivid memories of poor Charlie getting pranked and picked on by the people at work he thought were his friends. What a sad thing to make a 12-year-old read. Anyway, revisiting now many years later, it’s interesting. It’s definitely a good story, if a little gimmicky and more than a little sentimental.
The magic trick is obvious, but I’ll state it anyway. Keyes does a remarkable job of capturing the rise and fall of Charlie’s mind throughout the experiment. There are no surprises, and none of it is subtle. Still, it really is impressive the way he is able to carve out an individual and consistent character through what is a dramatic, science fiction plot. The essence of Charlie’s character remains the same regardless of his intelligence level. He wants to do good. He cares about other people. And that’s quite a trick on Keyes’s part.
“I don’t feel intelligent. There are so many things I don’t understand.”
She took out a cigarette and I lit it for her. “You’ve got to be a little patient. You’re accomplishing in days and weeks what it takes normal people to do in half a lifetime. That’s what makes it so amazing. You’re like a giant sponge now, soaking things in. Facts, figures, general knowledge. And soon you’ll begin to connect them, too. You’ll see how the different branches of learning are related. There are many levels, Charlie, like steps on a giant ladder that take you up higher and higher to see more and more of the world around you.
“I can see only a little bit of that, Charlie, and I won’t go much higher than I am now, but you’ll keep climbing up and up, and see more and more, and each step will open new worlds that you never even knew existed.” She frowned. “I hope … I just hope to God-”
“Never mind, Charles. I just hope I wasn’t wrong to advise you to go into this in the first place.”
I laughed. “How could that be? It worked, didn’t it? Even Algernon is still smart.”
We sat there silently for a while and I knew what she was thinking about as she watched me toying with the chain of my rabbit’s foot and my keys. I didn’t want to think of that possibility any more than elderly people want to think of death. I knew that this was only the beginning. I knew what she meant about levels because I’d seen some of them already. The thought of leaving her behind made me sad.
I’m in love with Miss Kinnian.
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